Adventure Games · Thoughts

The Vanishing of the Medium-Budget Game

Veteran game designer Jane Jensen, creator of the Gabriel Knight series as well as a slew of other adventure games, has set videogames aside to become a prolific author of erotic novels. She has written novels before, but this time she seems to have found her audience and a good creative space. I’m happy to hear she’s found a rewarding avenue for her creative energy–making a living out of your art is hard, people. And she’s successful and has a following–what is not to like?

Well, I for one don’t like that the games industry loses someone with her extensive experience as a game designer, especially when there’s such a dearth of women designers. The article that covers her career pivot explains in detail the tribulations of developing and releasing Gray Matter (2010) and Moebius (2014). Jensen’s heartbreaking conclusion is that “There’s not much opportunity in adventure games anymore.”

The article linked above encapsulates the dilemma of being a creator in games and trying to get the financial support to make new games in the following passage.

“The very particular path Jensen had to carve out for herself is revealing of how the industry treats its superstars. There’s no real opportunity for an independent writer-director to lead a large budget work without either submitting to employment within a massive corporate structure or building a corporate structure of their own. The industry does not give any one person power and independence at once, especially not at the scale Jensen once enjoyed.”

The budget of adventure games is far, far from that of AAA games with filmic aspirations, which are made by hundreds of people over several years, to be released to thunderous PR in all platforms. Why wouldn’t publishers or investors give a chance to someone with the track record of Jane Jensen? Compared to the millions and millions that big companies spend in their games, making a story-driven game for a devoted fanbase should be a sure bet–may not make a fortune, but probably could get recoup costs and then some if they can reach their audience. Part of the struggle of creating the games Jensen wanted was that she and her husband were spending their own money to make the game, which adds to the stress and raises the stakes of making an independent game; when the budget is also tight, it can also stretch the development of a project over years because developers end up working on commercial projects to make ends meet.

Gabriel Knight in the streets of Munich in The Beast Within (1995)

One of the reasons why publishers and investors are reluctant to give money to make classical adventure games is the trite and untrue phrase that “adventure games are dead,” which the article linked above perhaps inadvertently contributes to. Publishers and investors tend to seek not only sure bets, but projects that have the potential to make obscene amounts of money–something that most adventure games are unlikely to do. And when there is a successful story-driven game, be it an adventure game, walking simulator, or something of that ilk, it is always taken as an anomaly, an exception. The money people just want more of the same.

My problem is that the tone of articles like these contribute to the insidious idea that there’s no money not only in adventure games, but in story-driven games that aim at being original and veer away from the cookie-cutter popular games , when it is patently not true. Surely, there is no AAA money to be earn, but there are plenty of people releasing so many exciting, original and refreshing games, and making a living out of it. Some of them make games evoking the style of 90s adventure games, and in some cases are directly inspired by Jensen’s work, others tell heartfelt stories with animals or mutants; some others retell works of literature from the point of view of women, there is an explosion of fantastic visual novels that tell LGBT+ stories, and a lot of the population that is wearily underrepresented in games. These developers, alongside many more, have managed to release fascinating works and find their audience, which is no mean feat. If we think about game development as an artistic career rather than software development, it becomes evident that the game developer life, particularly when one puts creativity over product, is really hard. That is why having the financial security and endorsement of publishers and investors helps being able to focus on one’s game and help developers find their audience through PR, and the final result is all the better for it.

There is a dearth of support to middle-sized games, in a similar way to how the middle-budget films disappeared for a while – think of the independent movies of the 1990s, for example. These are the kind of works that take a moderate investment, bring a gust of fresh air to the mediascape, and can recoup costs and occasionally provide a hit. This is where one can reach the myriad smaller markets, rather than one large mainstream; where we can find the works that are personal, political, innovative, quirky. As we say in Spanish, variety is where taste is. In film, this kind of works are now being produced by streaming services, which a loss for those of us who used to love watching movies in a dark theatre with other people before that was brought to a halt. Games have not quite found their equivalent yet, the space for these middle-sized games that need more than a Kickstarter, but much much less than Call of Duty. This is the budget size that Jane Jensen needed and couldn’t get. There are a few publishers who are aware that there are audiences who crave new, daring, original games, and are willing to bet on them, and work more as patrons of the arts rather than venture capitalist looking to hit the jackpot. But we need more.

I do not have enough information state with absolute confidence how the industry failed Jensen, particularly after she created her own company, Pinkerton Road, to make shorter, low budget games, which should have been the right move for her. The outsourcing of development, where she wrote the game design document for the team to work on seems to me a bit odd approach, since it may leave out the processes of playtesting and iteration that are also part of adventure games, albeit at times iterating based on player feedback can be a production challenge. Perhaps it was a matter of PR, and making sure that the game got to the right audience. Perhaps the games didn’t live up to Jensen’s ideas since she didn’t have access to the resources that she would have liked to have. Perhaps she needed better PR to get to her players–there are many wonderful games that get lost in the deluge of releases every week. I’m sad we couldn’t get Jane Jensen to stay making more games, and I hope one day the industry can lure her back to make the games she wants.

Uncategorized

Spiritfarer: Much more than the “feels”

Steven Spielberg famously said in 2004 that videogames would prove they are an art form when they could make you cry in level 17, as if generating emotion was the only goal of art–a narrow view of the many things that the arts can do for humankind. I’m not going to make reductive arguments about how games are art, or complain about how games can indeed stir a range of emotions that do not only involve crying–joy, anger, frustration, fear, hilarity are all also emotions that players feel in games on a regular basis. I’m talking about how games can involve players emotionally through their narrative design–the way the world works, the goals of the game, and the way its story is told are all ways in which we can make players care about what they do. Games do not have to dictate emotions or meaning to their player, but rather provide spaces where players can find their own meaning. That’s what Spiritfarer (2020) does in droves.

2021 didn’t start well at all for me, which made me feel quite overwhelmed. I picked up Spiritfarer–I bought it on the week of release, played a couple of hours, thought it was wonderful, but didn’t get the chance to advance further. Other articles and reviews of Spiritfarer focus on how wonderfully the game deals with death and loss by turning the player into the new Charon, the boatman that brings the dead to Hades. Rather than an intimidating, worn out spirit, we’re Stella, a sprightly and jolly girl who takes her cat Daffodil everywhere. We go from island to island, picking up souls of the recently departed who still have some unresolved issues, and bringing them to live on our boat, where we prepare them food, give them hugs, and take them places where they can deal with the pain that prevents them from moving to the other side. We can pick up resources that allow us grow our own food, prepare wood and metal, even have a farm on the boat with sheep, cows and chickens.

A game where there’s a button that allows you to hug people in distress obviously has a particularly strong emotional impact these days, when many of us are deprived from hugging family and friends for months on end. Collecting items, such as recipes to blueprints to grow our boat, a variety of seeds, wood and ore, taps into the same instincts that Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020) exploited so well at the beginning of the pandemic. This, plus the stunning visuals, animation, and soundtrack, alongside tackling death in a thoughtful way, make Spiritfarer the kind of game that Spielberg was hoping to see back in the day.

Building and expanding the boat to have the resources we need to take care of our souls.

But that’s not what makes Spiritfarer noteworthy–though these are all factors that contributed to how the game stole my heart, the reason why this game kept me going back in short bouts between work, childcare, cooking and cleaning, is because it gave me a space to make it my own and provided me with a space of reflection, of connection, when I needed it.

Collecting items and growing our boat allows us to travel farther and faster in the world, so we can reach new islands, meet new people, and find more things to collect. These improvements allow us to break through ice barriers, sail through fog, and visit even more places. As we explore, we meet new people, learn their stories, and find new ways to help them. One could understand the narrative of the game as a reward for doing all the collecting and completing missions–formally, that’s what it does. But it’s the narrative design that makes all these actions meaningful. Spoilers ensue.

As we talk to the souls that come into our boat, we steadily realize that Stella knew them in life–which also makes us wonder whether Stella is alive. The writing is very smart–it is obvious that each character has a thought-out back story , which is also proved by the game’s artbook where we can read the complete stories of each character. But rather than making those stories explicit to the player, the characters speak how they would talk to someone who already knows them. The player can figure out a lot by paying attention to the text, even if the specific details of the events are not explained in detail. Stella herself remains silent–she’s there to help, listen and care for people, which is also the role of the player.

We do, however, get glimpses of Stella’s life. After she brings someone to the Everdoor, the gate to what lies beyond, we see pictures of her past, usually depicting how she relates to the person who just crossed. The story is all there, but it’s up to the player to interpret it and understand it. The writing leaves gaps that the player can fill, trusting that the they are smart enough to figure the story out. They may not get it absolutely right, or come up with their own version–that’s part of players bringing their own interpretation and making the story their own. And if players do not care about the dialogue, and just want to collect everything and run their boat, that is okay too–the game does not punish them or nag them (although I think it’s their loss).

One has to be a bit heartless to not care about the characters, though. One of my favourites was Stanley, whose soul takes the form of a walking mushroom. As you interact with him, you realize he’s a kid, and one who did not find a lot of kindness in life. There are memories of being bullied by other kids and his mum being angry at him; his dad seems to have been kinder but also absent. In one of the quests of the game, he asks to eat a “fakinhage”. When you finally realize he wants an egg, he mentions that that’s the word his mother used to refer to it, as “eat your fackinhage”–if you read between the lines, you realize she was angrily telling him to eat his food. Stanley also jumps on your arms when he you give him a hug, he’s funny, and only wants sweet things but not fruit and veggies. As I realized who he was and what had happened to him, I just spoiled him rotten and gave him breakfast and desserts because they were his favorite.

The game does take a subtle jab at obsessive collecting, however–one of the islands we discover is Susan’s Museum, where she gives us blueprints to upgrade our boat, new outfits, gems and other goodies, depending on how many other things we’ve collected–from a set of porcelain dolls, to number of recipes unlocked, or types of fish found. Susan gives you an annoyed greeting, and remarks on the futility of collecting so many things. It’s a poke that’s obvious if you pay attention to the writing.

Susan’s right–the things that we collect do not make the game much easier. Collecting can allay the itch of the completionists, but it does not change the game substantially unless the player cannot stand the sight of icons that point to locked content. So what do we collect all of these things for?

We collect to provide for the the souls that we’re taking care of. They all have favorite foods, which make them feel better, and have special requests, which often involve furnishing their dwellings in the boat. When they feel good, they also find items for us, help us make things like planks or ingots, and generally help around the boat. We see them busy and involved, they reciprocate the way in which we’re caring for them, and they seem to enjoy being in the boat.

And then they all reach the point where they realize they’re done. They’ve done what they needed to do, from visiting an old place that brings back happy memories, to having a big family meal, or stage a play telling about the dream they had. They tell you they’re ready, and you can bring them to the Everdoor whenever you are ready to let go, or when you want to expand your ship, because the flower they leave behind can be exchanged for improvements in your ship. This in particular was a dilemma for me–I was fond of most of the souls and didn’t want them to go. But I couldn’t hold on to them forever, because not taking them meant that I couldn’t help the others characters, who needed to go to islands that only an upgraded version of the ship could take us to. I could go on growing plants and harvesting them, cooking, and collecting things, keep grinding, but after a certain point it becomes clear that one cannot really pretend that you can do it forever. The characters are very diligent in telling the plaeyr that they really need you to help them with what they need. And when both they and I were ready, I was sure to prepare their favorite meal and give them a hug before embarking to the world beyond. Only one of the characters disappears of his own volition after you help them with their last wish. And I missed him so much–he loved everything I cooked, and his joy was contagious.

Hugging as a core mechanic.

Of all the characters, perhaps the one where it really clicked that I had to let her go was Alice. At first, the tasks we did for her help her think of happy times with her family; then it became obvious that she has been a devoted mother who has not done much for herself, so we took her to the island she longed to go to. And then she started talking to Stella as if she was her daughter Annie, and then found it harder and harder to move, so I had to move her room to the bottom floor. After that, she spent a whole night outside in the cold, and chided me because I forgot about her being there. I saw how poorly she was doing. She was suffering. She needed to go on. But she did not go with me to the Everdoor until I dressed up in the colors of her daughter dress. When she left it was heartbreaking, but I knew it was the right thing. For anyone who’s had family who have been degrading and suffering at the end of their life, helping Alice go truly resonates.

Once a character leaves, their rooms are left behind, with all the things that the player made for them, now covered in the flowers that represent them–and that can be used to upgrade the boat. Their old rooms are shrines to their memory, and I could not bring myself to teat them down. The player can scrape the places for materials to use them elsewhere. But if they do, they also lose the ability to access special events, which also provide materials to build new things. So the game design now points the player hold on to things, though they really don’t have to. Again, smart narrative design.

As the souls I was taking care of were leaving, the boat became more and more empty. The ship that I had put so much effort in growing and improving was missing its guests. During the day, the souls go around the boat, they call you, they make things, they walk around. After bringing the second to last soul to the door, the giant white owl, who has confronted us several times after fulfilling our mission, questioned our motivations for what Stella is / I am doing. Is all this work and sacrifice for others? Or am I doing it for myself / Stella, trying to avoid going through the Everdoor? The owl reveals that the last thing of the game is taking Stella and Daffodil to the door. And of course I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want the game to be over.

I was down to the last soul, who doesn’t ask Stella to go through the Everdoor. I kept our farm going, I could still improve and grow the ship and there were secrets left to uncover. But I didn’t see what the point was–the futility of grinding hit me. Who was I doing this for? I was done. I needed to wrap up. The words of the white owl rang true– I was playing to find solace from a lot of stress and overwhelm, to feel like I could take care of people who would express clear and direct appreciation.

Although I felt done with the game, I could not just go to the Everdoor and end the game just yet. I needed to make sure everyone was okay. There were a few errands on the islands that I wanted to get done, because there are people there who also need help running errands. I wanted to fish one last tuna fish, they’re hard to get. I made sure to feed my sheep and cow and chickens. I wanted to take care of everyone whom I could before leaving. And then both I and Stella were ready to go.

It’s tricky to get those tuna fish.

The end of the game is again where we see very smart narrative design (and production). Stella rows the boat with her cat, on her won, while the soothing music plays but there’s no dialogue. Every other time I brought someone through the door, they would tell me the last of their stories, why they felt they were ready, and they would often thank me for being there. The player can click through the dialogue, though the boat trip always takes the same amount of time, so the player has to wait through those last moments with the character. In Stella’s last trip, she remains silent, just as the rest of the game, and the trip is just as long. But feels longer, solemn. The player does not get to know more of her story than what the souls have told us about her. She is now approaching the door still smiling, and we’re facing what we did not want to quite happen. When she reaches the door, she gives Daffodil a last hug, and then joins the cosmos like everyone before her. Stella was done, and I was done.

This ending does not use any special animations or have a spectacular reward. It is understated, intimate, quiet. And, from a production standpoint, low resource-intensive, and a really smart way of using repetition to make these last moments meaningful and moving. The developers of the game have announced several expansions that will be released during 2021, with more characters, more on Stella’s story, more things to build and collect. I am curious indeed to learn more about the story, but I also know this was the right game for the right time, and I’m not sure if when those updates are released I’ll be in the right frame of mind. I feel done in a good way.

With this article, I don’t want to fall into trite arguments of how games can make you feel, or soppy stories of how games can deal with serious themes. My goal is to call attention to how Spiritfarer gave me the room to find my refuge and work things through through good narrative design. It is not only the writing, but how the goals of the game and the interactions guide you to do one thing or another. There’s nothing preventing players from playing the game to find all the islands and collect all the items. The game does not force you to care about the story. You can keep playing the game and keeping a farm and cooking and building stuff for as long as you want. You can find the way to be happy with the game. There are many ways to play it,. I found the game I needed at the right moment. I cared about the story of the characters, but it may be a different game for others, who may find it meaningful in their own way. And that’s the beauty of it.

choice design · Narrative Design · Reviews

Bandersnatch, or why Choosing Your Own Cereal is important

Bandersnatch, the first interactive episode of Black Mirror, was recently back in the news because of the lawsuit launched by the Choose Your Own Adventure publishing company has been settled, which has made me realize I didn’t get around to write about the episode yet. As anyone who works in narrative games / interactive narrative, of course I have opinions.

Hearing some of my colleagues in games and narrative design has been interesting, particularly those who made angry pushbacks and talked about it with derision. Much has been made of the first choice of the story, which lets the audience choose what kind of cereal they want to protagonist to have for breakfast, for instance. However, we should not dismiss the cultural impact that Bandersnatch has had on general audiences–thanks to Netflix, many people have learned the title of an actual unreleased game from the 1980s, plus it has made choice-based narratives accessible to others in ways that no other interactive television, let alone videogame, has before. Bandersnatch is very accessible–users do not have to install a new app or learn a new interface by making it available through one’s streaming subscription. Many videogame designers wish their work was as accessible and popular as this piece of interactive television.

The notorious “choose the cereal” moment is actually there for a very particular reason: while seasoned videogame players are used to making choices in games, much of the Netflix audience is not. Anyone who’s shown games at venues where you come across non-gamers knows how intimidating interacting with a game can be for them. Something as innocuous as choosing a cereal and seeing how it changes the advertisement on television helps putting users at ease, so they learn how the interaction of the story works. They make a choice, and soon after they see a consequence, and see that they have not broken anything. It makes them comfortable with interaction, which is good for a story that goes quite bonkers later on.

And before I go on explaining what I like about Bandersnatch, let me state that not every choice has to change the plot or not be trivial, because anyone who’s juggled branching narratives knows how much of our time is spent creating the illusion of choice or giving players small expressive choices so they feel they’re in control when they really not. Rant over.

The episode tells the story of a young man who is working on what he intends to be the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure game for the Spectrum 48k, one of the most popular computers in Europe in the mid-80s. The protagonist is marked by the trauma of losing his mother in a tragic accident, and is trying to gain control of his own life by working on this game.

Bandersnatch was made for me: I love Black Mirror and its frequently cynical approach to humanity (although current events make the show feel less science fiction and more speculative drama). The world of the episode is quite familiar–I work in videogames and mostly hang out with indie developers; on top of that, I have taught a class on European videogames of the 80s and got to learn a lot about the bedroom developers in the UK like the protagonist, as well as the story of the original Bandersnatch. Even without the interaction, the story resonated with me (yeah, indie game development is a challenge to one’s mental health), and I had a blast by figuring out all the easter eggs and references.

The interactive story is very meta: it’s a choice-based story about someone working on a choice-based story. The self-referential aspects help smooth over one of the main challenges of designing choice-based narratives–each choice creates an alternate timeline, which makes it easy to fall into inconsistencies and complicates writing a branching story (at least when branching is understood in an oversimplified way). The editing of the episode is really smart, reusing shots with different sounds or dialogue lines spoken off-camera, as a way to avoid having to shoot large segments of different content at the same time it shows how there are different timelines and realities. To some the episode seemed revolutionary–in the past, branching narratives have been either poorly designed because they are written by screenwriters with a poor understanding of interactivity, or by game designers who have a trite understanding of storytelling. Charlie Brooker is the rare person who seems to understand games, and also happens to be a pretty decent screenwriter, an unfortunately rare combination of skills.

The self-reflective nature of Bandersnatch turns the story into a gimmick–our decisions as an audience/user create alternative timelines that some of the characters seem to be aware of; in certain scenes, the protagonist behaves as if he’s aware that someone is forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do, turning us into the incarnation of his mental problems. But this is only true in certain threads of the story, while others turn the story into a conspiracy, while some others tell us a more intimate and ultimately tragic story. But the triumph of the story is bringing all of them together–this is a story about ontological instability, about worlds that have multiple versions with characters that are somewhat aware of that multiplicity. The huge poster of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik in one of the character’s living rooms is a pretty big and unsubtle giveaway. On the other hand, the metafictional gimmick also makes it really difficult to reproduce the success of Bandersnatch–it’s a one-trick pony that can get old fast, and not all choice-based narratives need to comment on the unstable worlds that they create.

(Excuse me if I don’t deign to discuss the “breaking the fourth wall”, because I’m tired the belief that any narrative should make “immersion” prevail, as if there is only one way to tell stories. Only one rant per day.)

Thus, the choice design of Bandersnatch is not about branching nor about agency or control over the story, but exploring the possibilities of the world, focusing on the “what if” and surprising the audience rather than making us feel like the story is at our service. The point where you can tell the protagonist about Netflix, or choose to go on a rampage are part of the fun of the story, which goes in many different directions and story genres–from personal drama to horrible murder to action movie to nostalgia trip.

Yes, choice-based narrative videogames are way ahead of this–see the wonderfully sophisticated works that Failbetter Games or Inkle Studios have been producing over the years, for example. But even with the smartest narrative designers out there, their fantastic works are still intimidating to a large part of the audience because they’re perceived as “videogames”. These are players and users who would be head over heels playing these games, but they seem too complicated to them. For example, I had someone who loved playing Her Story at a film festival ask me if he could download it through the streaming service Kanopy. The technological barrier is overwhelming to many.

There are things that Bandersnatch could do better, certainly. The aspect of social commentary is not as solid or resonant as other episodes, for example, probably because it’s more of a trippy period piece than science fiction. Since the story is about itself and the choices, there’s little room for anything else. There are issues with gender representation–the women in the episode are mostly wives/mothers or helpers and have a supporting role, for example. Mental health issues created by trauma are associated with psychopathy and murder, which is something that we storytellers should be better at–although it is part of the storyline exploration of the episode, the murder storytline reproduces stereotypes that do not need reinforcement. Although my particular pet peeve of the story is how the protagonist is creating a game for the ZX Spectrum in BASIC, and there’s no way that a game of that scope, with graphics and all, would fit in the paltry 48K of RAM that computer had. But while there are issues of representation that could be better addressed, we also have a few lessons to learn about how to engage a wider audience that may recoil at the mention of videogames, while they may probably love playing choice-based narrative games. And at times all it takes is starting by letting them choose their own cereal.

education · Resources · Thoughts

Mentoring for Diversity: Getting things Done

We can all make big statements on social media about increasing diversity in the video games, but when it comes to making things actually happen, it turns out that the problems are systemic at the core, and that it feels like there is little that we can do. We could throw one hands up in the air and give up. Or we can try to hack the area of influence that we may have – if we all manage to modify the cogs of the machine one piece at a time, maybe we can overhaul the system. It’s hard, but worth it.

For some of us, one possible way to do so is through mentoring of people of underrepresented groups who want to work in games. As mentors, we can help them navigate this broken system in which we’re trapped, teach them so they can figure out how to break into the industry, as well as how to thrive, persevere, and have the career they want and deserve.

This article is for those of us who are in a position of relative power in education and the games industry, and it is mostly based on my experience working in game development and education for the last decade. I cannot claim to have figured it out – I’ve made many mistakes myself, though I’m listening and want to do better. What I’m sharing here is what seems to have worked so far.

The Problem

The first thing to know about mentorship is that it is hard work, which not everyone may be in a position to do. Mentorship involves emotional labor because, more often than not, the support that mentors provide involves listening and understanding what our mentees struggle with, and offering guidance tailored to their experience. Real mentorship builds a relationship over time. Chatting with someone and giving them advice a couple of times can help, but productive mentorship needs to be a longer commitment.

The second thing to know about mentoring is that those who belong to underrepresented groups often feel like they do not belong. Again, it’s a feeling – hence the emotional labor. It has nothing to do with their talent or capacity for work. The world around them is constantly telling them that they are not good enough, that they have to like the “right” kinds of games and behave in a specific “gamer” way in order to “fit the culture,” and even when they do, they may remain invisible and still be shut out. This also means they feel they cannot be themselves, but rather follow someone else’s script. It can take a toll on their mental health. It also leads to almost unshakeable impostor syndrome, and makes them more likely to quit.

People from underrepresented groups have to do a lot of extra work in order to prove their worth. You may have heard the phrase that Ginger Rogers had to do the same as Fred Astaire but backwards and in high heels. That’s true of most people in underrepresented groups. The impostor syndrome is exacerbated by the fact that they are held to standards well above the average, which require extra effort and commitment to achieve.

The higher standards to which they’re usually held are also due to implicit biases that we all have – even people who think of themselves as progressive intellectuals fall into these traps. White men tend to be regarded more positively, and their faults are also more often forgiven – their threshold for making mistakes is way higher, whereas if a woman / BIPOC / LGBTQ+ slips a bit it’s often catastrophic and regarded as evidence that they cannot do the job.

Your potential mentees have to prove their merits, but meritocracy is a myth that elites invoke to keep their privilege. “Merit” involves having access to specific groups and knowledge, which are often selective and (surprise!) not diverse at all, so the vicious circle keeps going. Factors that can provide an advantage are being able to attend a renowned school, living in or near a city that grants access to meetups where they can forge social relationships in person, developing a specific taste that allows you to connect with like-minded people. Having access to games and a computer to make them is a form of gatekeeping – not everyone can buy games at full price on release date to be part of the current discourse or buy a high-end PC, for example.

Is there a solution?

The lack of diversity is a very difficult problem, and we’re not going to solve it in a few months, even if we have the best of intentions. But we cannot stand idle. So here are some suggestions that may work for you and your (future or current) mentees:

  • First of all, a bit of self-reflection. Check your own biases. Yes, this part hurts. But it’s for a good cause.
    • Who are you giving preferential treatment? Why are you doing it? How diverse are they? In an educational setting, students can tell who is getting extra help and guidance – and people of underrepresented groups can tell it’s usually not them.
    • Of your mentees, who has been successful? Who has fallen through the cracks?
    • Those who fell through the cracks, is it because they were not committed or talented? Was it financial? Mental health issues? Is there anything that you could have done to improve the situation? Would a white cisgendered male have eventually been given a pass in the same situation?
  • Offer yourself as a mentor, seeking spaces that may bring you into contact to underrepresented groups. Post it on your social media; if you’re an educator, reach out to students. Make yourself visible. Find groups that are looking for mentors, or team up with other mentors. The hardest part of this is that these potential mentees are less likely to ask for help / mentorship – remember, they are told they do not belong. But forcing yourself to mentor someone is definitely not the best way to make them trust you, particularly if you hold some sort of privilege (e. g. being white / male / cisgendered / in a situation of power). And trust is the foundation of mentorship.
  • When you mentor, listen to and try to understand your mentee. Acknowledge who they are, what they want, and what is getting in the way. One of the main reasons some people give up on their studies / careers is feeling that they are not listened to. Taking a moment to say “Let me see if I understand…” is a basic exercise to connect with your mentee, get them to know better, and get to know them as people and artists.
  • Reach out regularly once you’ve established a connection. As I said, this takes work. And again, your mentees are less likely to ask for help. So remind them you’re there. Calendar reminders, recurring items in your to do list, are easy ways to remind you and check the last time you talked to them.
  • Fight for your mentee. Show their worth to others. Send them job ads. You may be in a position where others are more likely to listen to you than your mentee, have access to contacts and information that they don’t. This is all work beyond meeting with them.
  • Provide constructive feedback. One of the main obstacles to keep underrepresented groups in games is that they often feel they don’t have the talent or skills, as part of the false meritocracy that rules the industry and academia. Feedback needs to be honest, because they’re learning and that’s why you’re helping them. But feedback that just points at what they do wrong without offering solutions or support does not help, and reinforces the sense that they do not belong. So when giving feedback, remember to:
    • highlight what they’re doing right. Remind them what they’re good at.
    • point them to how to make it better, if there’s something that they’re struggle with, or can be improved. Provide them with references (web links, video tutorials, articles, books if they can afford them).
  • Teach them the invisible rules (if you know them). One of the things that prevent people from thriving in specific industries and groups is not knowing the etiquette of a group, from social expectations to creative standards. This is another very challenging problem, first of all, because as a mentor you may not be aware of what they are. Maybe because you take them for granted, or maybe because you’re also part of the underrepresented group. The main challenge is mentees may feel like they have to change their behavior and who they are in order to adhere to those “invisible rules,” which are not explicit or easy to formulate, because their invisibility and haziness is what helps excluding others. Help them understand that these are arbitrary rules, that change from place to place (e.g. AAA vs casual vs indie; North America vs Europe); the balance they need to find is how to operate within those invisible rules while still being true to themselves.

These are just a few points – many come from having had great mentors and really terrible ones. I could have fallen through the cracks many times, so a lot of this comes from my experience as a recipient. It also comes from working with students; now that I’m in a relative position of privilege, I’m trying to do the work. I cannot claim I have figured things out, but I’m trying my damnedest to change the world, one bit at a time.

Thanks to my colleague Naomi Clark for her feedback on this article.

Narrative Design · News and Events

The Narrative Innovation Showcase 2020

For this year’s GDC, Matthew Weise and I had prepared the 5th consecutive Narrative Innovation Showcase at the Game Developers Conference (GDC)  in San Francisco. It was going to be the opening session of the  the Narrative Summit on Monday March 16th. Since GDC was cancelled as one of the early casualties of the pandemic, we didn’t get our wonderful set of presenters to show their work in California, but we would still like to highlight the showcase we had prepared.  Here we explain why we selected the games for the showcase, in a year where there have been plenty of games made by very talented narrative designers. Our panelists are also putting together videos of what would have been their presentations, which will be made available in GDCs YouTube channel. 

Astrologaster 

Katharine Neil for NyamYam.

Game Website

Astrologaster is a particularly apt game to play these days, since it takes place during the plague in London in 1592. We are Doctor Simon Forman, an astrologist / astronomis / physician who can cure any illness and solve any problem by looking at the stars – he’s a true renaissance man. By solving the plights of our customers we can gain reputation and finally achieve the proper doctor’s license that Doctor Forman doesn’t really have. The historical setting is unusual in games – though not the only game set during a plague released in the last year. There are many things that we love of this game that we find truly refreshing – from its Renaissance songs, to the bawdy themes. This is also one of the rare cases where we have a writer who is on top of her craft, the care in the language in the dialogue as well as the lyrics of the songs is a joy to see in videogames. 

Before I Forget

Chella Ramanan & Claire Morley, 3-fold Games

Before I Forget is a poetic first-person experience attempting to capture what it is like to live with dementia. It would be unfair to peg it as a mental health awareness game because, though it clearly serves that function, it uses its thoroughly researched mechanics design to push first-person storytelling in new directions. The use of shifting color to signify something half-remembered, the way everyday objects provide fragments of memories that can suddenly cascade into full-on recall, or the way space folds in on itself to capture the experience of a memory just out of reach: these are at once fresh techniques for creating evocative spatial stories and also beautiful ways to drive the subject matter home. We love how Before I Forget portrays dementia’s effects, be they good or bad, with nuance and complexity by pushing the medium forward.

Cris Tales

Carlos Rocha, Dreams Uncorporated

Game Demo

 

Cris Tales is a great example of a group of talented folks taking a familiar genre to new personal, political, and mechanical heights. It is a fantasy RPG where the player has the ability to simultaneously experience past, present, and future at every moment of the game, allowing you to see the impact of actions across time instantly. Yet rather than just being a fun gimmick for another general save-the-world story, this core conceit is used to explore the cause and effect of systemic environmental collapse, the ensuing civic crisis it causes, and how that crisis exacerbates existing class inequalities in a fantasy world based heavily on Colombian folklore, architecture, politics, and economics. What we love  about Cris Tales because it is the very essence of artistically engaged genre work, using familiar forms to say something about real life through metaphor, via a fresh core mechanic that is impossible to divorce from its storytelling function.

Tick Tock: A Tale for Two 

Mira Dorthé & Tanja Tankred, Other Tales Interactive

The way Tick Tock: A Tale for Two pushes the art of narrative design forward is at once brilliant and simple. To a certain extent, it is a conventional adventure game, where a pair of co-op players must work together to solve the unraveling, multi-generational riddle of a mysterious dynasty of clock-makers. The two find clues, solve puzzles, all while piecing together fragments of the story. The difference is both of these players are on a different screen and have access to different information, causing in-person communication to emerge as the secret core mechanic. Players have to talk to each other – discuss the story, clues, context, theories – to solve the ever-expanding mystery and complete the story. Tick Tock: A Take for Two elegantly to re-introduces the communal in-person experience to the narrative adventure game format, making it feel old and new, simple and complex, all at once.

Mutazione

Hannah Nicklin, Die Gute Fabrik

Game Website

Explaining the charm of Mutazione is not easy – it is best to play it and see for oneself. We do have a soft spot for adventure games – we have featured a lot of them in our showcase over the years. The island of Mutazione is populated by quirky and endearing mutants—everybody has secrets, hopes and traumas, which we can discover as we explore the different locations. The game lets us forge emotional connections with the characters because everybody feels real; there are no stereotypes or cardboard characters here. Its developers define it as a soap-opera, because its cast has a life that is independent from us, they have whole lives and relationships on their own – they’re not there just for the player. The capacity of the game to make us believe that it is a living environment is unusual, and we would love to see more games that explore the emotional connections between their NPCs.

(Full disclosure: I worked on the Spanish version of this game.)

You can watch previous editions of the Narrative Innovation Showcase here: 2016 (YouTube), 2017 (GDC Vault), 2018 (GDC Vault), 2019 (YouTube).

Thoughts

The Music is the Story

Our lives have a music soundtrack—people often associate songs with specific moments of their existence and create emotional connections with melodies. A few notes can send us spinning to a summer in our childhood, a fun party, or the aftermath of a breakup.

People often refer to film or videogame soundtracks and their capacity to evoke emotions, understanding that the music dictates how the audience has to feel about what is happening on the screen. I find this notion rather limiting, even irritating—think of documentaries or reality TV playing loud soundtracks to indicate that there’s a moment of suspense, or that the scene is sad because people are crying. They want the audience to feel a certain way, as if they couldn’t have their own emotional reactions to the events they’re watching. More often than not, these musical devices are trite because the emotions they evoke have very little subtlety, and they tend to be a stock library that repeats from episode to episode. These music cues can also be intrusive, trying to amplify a mood that is already created visually, verbally, or through camerawork, by playing predictable music in ways that can ruin the scene.

This is a pet peeve of mine because I’m the kind of weirdo who pays attention to music in films and videogames. (And in the muzak in the supermarket and the elevators. It can be torture, really.) And I do pay attention because the music also tells the story—characters, situations, spaces can have their own melodies. The use of leitmotifs is extensive in film—you can recognize the music that identifies James Bond, or the Force in Star Wars. Games also use them a lot in the form of loops that repeat so they can adapt to the length of gameplay. If you’ve played any Final Fantasy game, I’m sure you can recognize the different combat music loops. The loops change their tempo, key, or instrumentation depending on the situation not only to cue different emotional states, but also to give us game information. The soundtracks for the Metal Gear series have always done a great job to create both mood and tell the player what is going on, from loops closer to ambient music for the stealth sections to accelerated and strong beats when Snake is in danger. (These loops never resolve, because that’s what suspense is all about.) The music is also part of the interface, provides feedback about the world.

But there’s another narrative that game music also creates, which relates to what I referred to at the beginning. The music of games is also the soundtrack of our lives, in ways that perhaps – and regretfully – film scores may not always get the chance to do. Those music loops become engraved in our brains and our hearts after listening to them over and over and over again. The first notes of the menu music of an arcade game, the melody of difficult levels in a platformer, also have the power to make us travel back in time. It’s not a matter of nostalgia—it’s connecting those notes with the people we were with, what we were going through when we played those games. The story is not only of the characters on the screen, it’s our own stories; the emotions evoked by the melodies are not what the composition may dictate, but our own personal associations with those leitmotifs. I love to go to videogame score concerts and see the audience cheer and clap when the first notes of their favorite games start playing, celebrating their time spend with them. One of my favorite moments in one of these concerts was seeing several black and latino kids banging their heads to the notes of the Metal Gear Solid 2 Main Theme, in perfect unison, living the music. Videogame scores are part of the soundtrack of our lives in similar ways how pop music marks different periods of our history.

Detectives · Reviews · Thoughts

Mysteries Stuck in a Loop

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is the latest example of how time-loops and detective stories are a compelling combination–I hope it becomes one of those “must read” novels for game designers and interactive storytellers soon. Evelyn Hardcastle brings together Agatha Christie and Groundhog Day drizzled with a bit of David Lynch. The protagonist of the novel relives the day a murder takes place in an English manor. He controls one person at a time, and the only way to break the loop is to solve the mystery; to do that, he has 8 days / lives to find the solution. If it sounds like a game, it’s because it is a wickedly complicated story puzzle, delightfully put together.

Coming from narrative games, I particularly enjoyed how the protagonist notices the friction with his hosts–what he wants to do may be at odds with their impulses, while the intelligence or insight of the person he’s controlling allows him to notice certain details or have specific realizations. This is not dissimilar to how the stats of a character in a role-playing game can determine what we can do and what we cannot. Although the author does not list videogames as one of the inspirations for the game (he mentions the TV show Quantum Leap in the Q&A at the end of the book), the storytelling takes advantage literacies that games and complex TV shows foster these days. Audiences can follow stories with multiple points of view, gaps that are steadily filled out (or not), so that as they read / watch / play they’re assembling the story puzzle.

A protagonist stuck in the same sequence of events until they get something right is a story structure recreates how we navigate digital storytelling, where the interactor explores the possibilities of a story until we get the “right” version, as Janet Murray breaks down in her analyses of Groundhog Day or Run Lola Run. The pervasiveness of videogames, which often involve trial and error, has turned this structure into a commonplace in other media. The manga All You Need is Kill, adapted to film as Edge of Tomorrow, both thrive on the tropes of combat videogames, so the journey of the main character depends on him remembering his mistakes and learning from them for the next loop, just like a videogame player would. The structure of the time loop has also been long embraced by videogames, starting with The Last Express (1997) and The Legend of Zelda: Marjora’s Mask (2000), neither of which have got the attention and recognition they deserve. Now there’s a whole slew of games recently released or coming up in the next few months: The Sexy Brutale (2017), Elsinore (2019), Outer Wilds (forthcoming), 12 Minutes (forthcoming). The metalevel of the knowledge of the player now becomes part of the game mechanics. And let’s not forget interactive fiction, where there’s already a sizable collection of examples in the last 20 years.

What interests me of the time loop as a narrative / game structure is how combines with mystery, which is what initially drove me to read Evelyn Hardcastle. In a mystery narrative, the initial goal of the detective is to reconstruct the story of the crime. One of the challenges to design a mystery videogame is figuring out how to let the computer evaluates whether the player got the solution right or not–something that is easier to do in non-digital games. Questionnaires are a common device, while letting the player fail can also be a productive approach–maybe players want to replay the game until they get it right, making the loop something that takes place at a meta-level, in the time and space of the player.

Time loop mysteries make the trial-and-error part and parcel of the world of the story / game. Thanks to Groundhog Day, many storytellers and game designers do not see the need to explain why that loop is happening–Evelyn Hardcastle does, in what seems to be a seed to tell further stories with a similar structure (I hope!). The time loop mystery structure is alluring because each loop allows the player / audience to get more information about what happened, and then use that information to solve the mystery or change the events. Some events take place simultaneously, so they require making choices and revisiting the story over and over in order to reveal each piece of the puzzle–where and when people are at each moment. While traditional media have used the loop as a way to structure the story and keep the audience intrigued until the end, the game player needs to actually solve the puzzle and use as many time loops as necessary to get to the end.

Bonus: If you’re into time loop mysteries and science fiction, you may want to listen to the Doctor Who audio story The Chimes of Midnight.

Puzzles · Thoughts

Crosswords and Culture

Apart from being one of the most brilliant music composers and lyricists of the 20th century, Stephen Sondheim is also a game geek and a puzzle lover. Makes sense that someone who marries music and lyrics for a living would also have a penchant for fitting words into grids. Back in the day, he also wrote an article outlining the difference between crosswords in the US and the UK–while American crosswords appeal to an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia, what he calls “British-style” crosswords thrive in being cryptic and challenge the puzzle-solver to understand what the clue is pointing to. He expresses a preference for the British type which should not be a surprise either–cryptic crosswords are more poetic, since they are basically posing riddles for each entry.

Sondheim’s article is a beautiful example of how game design and culture go hand in hand; it also becomes richer the moment that we start looking at crosswords in other languages. Although I can  play words games both in English and Spanish, I prefer crosswords in Spanish to the famous series of The New York Times. First, because the kind of encyclopedic knowledge needed to solve the NYT crossword requires being steeped in American culture and history in a way that is not accessible to a foreigner. Second, the phonotactics of Spanish allow many ways to make words cross in interesting ways. Opening some of the crossword magazines in Spain is a joy – some crosswords don’t tell you how many letters each word has (crucigrama blanco), some puzzles use words broken down in their syllables (crucigrama silábico), some have themes that many of the clues refer to.

My favorite type of crossword is the autodefinido (arroword in English) where the clues of each entry are written in the cell that separates each word. Some cells need to display two clues (one for a horizontal word, one for a vertical), so they need to be extremely brief, two or three words maximum. The clues in this type of crossword usually thrive on vocabulary knowledge, since most of them are synonyms, as well as cultural knowledge, most often geography, with toponyms and demonyms being some of the most common.

Autodefinidos are fast and easy – after all, crosswords were casual games before we invented such term. Although autodefinidos are based on linguistic and cultural knowledge, they become accessible relatively fast. Each crossword book publisher has a certain preference for specific knowledge domains and vocabulary – the first time a puzzle asks you for three-letter words in Spanish that mean “Turkish officer” or “River of Switzerland”, the reference seems ridiculously obscure. But as you continue solving puzzles, you keep coming across these riddles, and you learn that the answers are “AGA” and “AAR” respectively.  For the designers, these words become little stitches to hold the crossword together, and the puzzle solver learns to identify them over time. Each magazine publisher has a set of esoteric words that characterize them.

Autodefinidos also have a surprising variety – apart from having the same typology as regular crosswords (figure out where the blank cells are, divide the words in syllables, thematic riddles), they also do wonders with their layout – some of them have honeycomb layouts where words can be spelled in lines or around a cell. Others combine the crossword with the cryptogram, so the cells for each word in the crossword follow serpentine patterns, and when you find all the definitions, the square displays a literary quote. Everything falls into place and it’s beautiful.

Designing crosswords requires a level of craft computers can facilitate; in the end, it is up to the ingenuity of the designers, who often go uncredited, to create a challenge to one’s knowledge and wits. Some designers like challenging players with hair-pulling riddles, while others provide enough scaffolding so they can complete the puzzle. The NYT crosswords are all about proving the solver is “smart”, and has access to a certain knowledge and education that is highly situated in American culture – and, more often than not, New York City culture. If the puzzle-solver is stuck, they had to buy the newspaper of the following day to find the answer, though these days it’s a matter of having a subscription to the crosswords themselves. In contrast, collections of autodefinidos help the solver expand their vocabulary and trivia knowledge by repeating definitions from puzzle to puzzle, and magazine to magazine; the answers are in the same issue, so that knowledge is accessible immediately. Thus crosswords and their design also partake of different social conventions and levels of privilege.

 

Interactive Fiction · Resources

Parser-based Interactive Fiction: A Primer

I have been using game writing and narrative design for 10 years now; all this time, I’ve had students making parser-based interactive fiction games (a.k.a. text adventure games).  One of the biggest challenges is for students to understand how these games work – they’re not a mainstream commercial genre any more. But I keep them on my syllabus because this genre teaches the foundations of story-driven games very well: how to tell stories through objects, establishing interactions, basic dialogue systems and AI for characters. On top of this the rise of intelligent agents like Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana — all of these parse spoken input instead of written. Turns out that this old-fashioned type of games still have a lot to teach us.
So my main hurdle is how to get students to play parser-based interactive fiction. The nice thing about the format is that there is so much out there that there’s a game for everyone. In the past, I used the collection put together by my friends at the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction. It’s an exquisite selection, but there’s not a lot. My introduction to parser-based contemporary interactive fiction was a wide list of works, and I just picked and chose whatever sounded interesting. So I decided to make a larger, updated selection, so my students could find whatever they’re interested in. This list is not a canon – I’m not a fan of canons – but an invitation to find one’s own way into the world of parser-based interactive fiction.
What follows is a primer to understand the conventions of interactive fiction, alongside a collection of games to pick and choose from.

How to play Interactive Fiction

Interactive fiction (IF from now on) starts with text and then invites you to type what you want to do. The commands follow specific conventions, so you have to learn those first. Start by having a look at this quick cheatsheet. If you need more details, this old guide is still very handy.
There’s several ways in which you can play IF. You can do it on your browser directly – most of the links below include a link to a browser version of the game. Games can be as short as 30 seconds to more than an hour. For longer games, you may want to play them on your computer or even your phone to be able to save your game. In order to do that, you need to run an interactive fiction interpreter, which is a program that loads the game and plays it on the platform of your choice. The most reliable interpreter for modern platforms is Andrew Plotkin’s Lectrote.
One nice thing about IF is that If you want to play games on your phone or tablet while huddling under a blanket, you can! There’s interpreters for Android (Hunky Punk,
Some of the games require to draw a map if you want to know where you are. So be sure to have pen and paper at hand to take notes.

The Interactive Fiction Collection

These are some recommended games, grouped in different categories to fit a variety of interests. You don’t need to play them all, though I’d start with the ones on top of the list and then explore the rest of the list based on your interests. Enjoy!
Beginners
Experimental

It’s better to play these once one’s familiar with IF.

Fractured Fairytales

These are Emily Short’s games based on traditional fairytales.

Lovecraft

For some reason, all of the horror games that ended up in this collection are based / inspired by Lovecraft.

Science Fiction / Fantasy
Mystery
Puzzle-lite
Wordplay
Weird and Wonderful

(a.k.a. Andrew Plotkin does his thing)

choice design · Interactive Fiction · Narrative Design · Resources

Taxonomy of Narrative Choices

A few years ago, I realized that in order to teach narrative choice design I needed a classification of types of choices. Creating games in the style of choose-your-own adventure, in the style of Choice of Games, Inkle Studios, Failbetter Games, the sadly defunct Telltale Games, or for interactive film, requires having a vocabulary that refers to the different ways in which choices can be expressive.

I came up with my own taxonomy, which I have been teaching in different iterations over the years. Inspired by works like Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, I finally realized it’d be best to illustrate the taxonomy interactively, on top of discussing examples in the class. You can read/play the taxonomy on my itch.io page.  (Update 16-Oct-19: Spanish version of the interactive taxonomy.)

This taxonomy is part of a larger lecture, which is the introduction to narrative choice design in my classes. While games may be a series of interesting choices, they also become much more complicated when we make those decisions be part of a longer narrative. One of the reasons why making choices can be compelling is that players can see the consequences of their decisions—that is the foundation of agency, one of the pleasures of digital media as defined by Janet Murray. We like feeling that the game is listening to us, that we are in control of our actions in the game, that our choices matter.

Challenging agency, however, also has a lot of expressive possibilities. First of all, players can have the illusion of agency without having to change the content of the game. If you’ve played any of the choice-based Telltale games, you have probably seen the caption “So-and-so will remember that” after making a decision. Most of the time, it turns out they won’t—but the player can believe that their action had an effect on someone. It is a way to use the player’s perception and imagination in order to fill the gaps and not having to expand on the content.

Frustrating the player, taking away agency, can also be expressive. Games have the annoying tendency to become “entitlement simulators” ; game designers should challenge players to make difficult, painful decisions, have them realize that the world may not revolve around them, and that there may be problems that are beyond their control. Untethered agency can be problematic in dating sims, for example—boiling down intimate relationships to choosing the right things to say oversimplifies how humans connect with each other. Representing love as having agency over a person, or being able to “win” them by achieving a score, can reinforce certain unhealthy ideas about relationships, and push players down the brink of toxicity

The taxonomy I propose is therefore a breakdown of the different ways in which undermining agency can be expressive, and can help players think about what they do. (Maybe.)

combinatorics explosion.001

Using different types of choices is also a healthy way to keep projects under scope. As the image shows, if for every decision the player makes the story bifurcates, the content multiplies very fast. In order to write a choose-your-own-adventure story where each version is only four pages long, and only gives two choices to the player on each page, we  would have to write fifteen (15) pages. It is not very efficient and the combinatorial explosion goes out of control very fast. There are also models of different structures that both provide players with interesting choices without having to generate inordinate amounts of content—Sam Kabo Ashwell provides one of my favourite classifications on his blog.

Last but not least, a lot of what went into the taxonomy and my original lecture comes from the lessons I learned from working  in my classes with ChoiceScript by Choice of games (check out their game design blog posts if you’re interested in the topic).